Review: The Cherry Orchard

THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov (Chekhov Collective/Theatrus). At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to February 14..

THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov (Chekhov Collective/Theatrus). At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to February 14. $24-$48. 416-368-3110. See Continuing. Rating: NN

After Chris Abraham’s exquisite version of Chekhov‘s The Seagull exactly a year ago, this production of another of the Russian master’s works – performed just upstairs from that other one – comes as a letdown. Especially since one of the co-producers is called the Chekhov Collective and director Dmitry Zhukovsky hails from Russia.

You need to find the right tone of melancholic comedy to pull off this work about the impending fall of an aristocratic family in a changing Russia. Despite a couple of strong performers, Zhukovsky and company flail about uncertainly.

After fleeing to Paris following the drowning death of her son, Lyubov Ranevskaya (Rena Polley) has returned to her estate, which is about to be auctioned to pay off the family’s debts. Lopakhin (Andrew Pogson), the enterprising son of a peasant, has an idea about how to save the property, but Lyubov and her equally deluded brother Leonid (Richard Sheridan Willis) are more interested in staying in the past than in moving forward.

Zhukovsky and set designer Dimitrii Khilchenko find a wonderful metaphor for that state of permanent nostalgia in a big children’s nursery dominated by a beautifully detailed screen of the titular orchard, complete with drawn figures of children, with holes so people can pop their heads out and pretend to be kids.

Willis and Polley are fine in their roles his self-destructive Leonid is always making pronouncements, protected by a veneer of entitlement, while her Lyubov is fragile and dreamy, forcing back despair with an artificial laugh.

Pogson does a lot of heavy lifting as the upwardly mobile Lopakhin, and Nina Gilmour brings a clown-like zest to her maid Dunyasha, while John Gilbert plays his old footman, Firs, with suitable solemnity. (It’s a shame his final monologue feels so protracted.)

What Zhukovsky – who also has a small scene as a boorish stranger at the end of act one – doesn’t do well is establish the relationships between the characters. In a work that has people pining for those who are in love with others, the actors seem left on their own.

Especially under-realized is the relationship between Lyubov’s daughter Anya (Thalia Kane) and perpetual student Petya (Harrison Thomas).

There’s some unnecessary, and distracting, use of the aisles, and Joseph Patrick‘s lighting design could be more nuanced.

One bright spot is Joy Tanner‘s governess Charlotta, whose magic tricks come off without a hitch. Her character doesn’t seem connected to anyone else, but she gives you something to look at for a few minutes.

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